Since when is an emoji a word?

You know something’s up when Oxford Dictionaries breaks with all tradition to name a pictograph — an emoji known as “Face with Tears of Joy” — as its Word of the Year.

Tears of Joy emoji

“There were other strong contenders from a range of fields,” the Oxford Word blog explains, “but this image was chosen as the ‘word’ that best reflected the ethos, mood and preoccupations of 2015.”

For UC Berkeley philosophy professor Alva Noë, there’s a “paradox lurking” in the lexicographers’ unusual choice.

“Oxford Dictionaries tried to have it both ways,” he writes. “They anoint the emoji as the Word of the Year, but they actually refer to it in their explanation using scare quotes. They call it a ‘word.'”

What is the significance of the emojis used freely in communication today?

For Noë, an emoji “seeks to communicate, on the page, something that, in a way, can’t be communicated; namely, how something is said or the manner in which it is expressed. It is as if, instead of finding the appropriate way to express our meanings, we express our meanings any old way and then stipulate, with an emoji, that we say it with a smile, or indeed, with tears of joy.”

Read Alva Noë’s piece on the NPR blog 13.7 cosmos and culture.